The Joker is a comic-book humdinger. No supervillain comes close to his disruptive articulation in the DC Universe, and no pain is more explosive than his. Does this pain really have knotted roots? Not really, as Todd Phillips, director of Joker, would have it.
Phillips (Starsky & Hutch, 2004; The Hangover Trilogy), a seasoned hand in orchestrating American male stupidity for the purpose of screen hilarity, collaborates with Bradley Cooper (as co-producer), Scott Silver (as co-writer), cinematographer Lawrence Sher and music director Hildur Gudnadottir for a visually lustrous character study of Batman’s nemesis. It is a one-man show, as any origin story of Joker would perhaps be.
Phoenix, known for intense, immersive performances (Johnny Cash in Walk the Line; Freddy Quell in The Master; Theodore Twombly in Her) is the heart of the film. He is several kilos leaner, and his protruding ribs and shoulder blades are as salient to the lead act as his neurological ticks, white-red-blue overlapping layers of face paint that cover tears and sweat, fluffy green hair, perfected dance moves and stomach-churning ability to execute bloodbath. Phoenix shows method madness with amazing accuracy, not missing the slightest chance to articulate the workings of his inner demons. Almost every expression gives away something alarming, and a lot of it is slow-burn repetition.
“I have never been happy my entire fucking life,” Arthur Fleck, or Joker, says. He is a clown for hire, also an aspiring comedian. So there you have it, the promising set-up.
The year is 1981. A mammoth class war is imploding on the streets. Arthur lives in a shabby quarter of Gotham City with his mother, once an employee of the mayor-in-running Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Arthur has it tough almost from the first scene. Beaten, battered, humiliated and scoffed, his anger gains momentum after he discovers a family secret. Phillips isn’t going for clever in his Batman references, and Joker’s introduction to future Batman Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olsen) is one of the lamest scenes in the film.
Arthur is forsaken both by Wayne and sexist but funny-in-the-1980s television talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, channeling Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy). Zazie Beetz is Arthur’s neighbour and seems to be his only sympathiser. Just when we think Arthur is poised for a tender redeeming, the climax is near.
Like any untapped origin story, the writers have a minefield to potentiate the evil on display. Their only limitation is the Gotham City setting, which has already inspired enough sexy apocalypse. The writers don’t go for layers or significant interconnectedness of the time and setting and Joker’s personal journey of unhinging. Childhood trauma and neglect, the favourite American payoff, are the only explanations we are given. Psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs are in their nascent years in America as the panacea for all human sorrow. But it makes a point. At one point, coinciding with Joker’s rise (or fall) to gory pandemonium, his “medication” stops.
Evil is most terrifying when it plays out in a banal way, and this is the antithesis of banal, and so not as terrifying as it is shocking – hyper-articulated, hyper-acted, incendiary malevolence. Joker’s symbols of revenge are blood spluttered on his white face, shootings inside a subway overcrowded with masked clowns (an obvious doff to The French Connection) and pulped human bodies. He incites an ugly revolution in Gotham City against the privileged and the affluent, and Phillips and his co-writer aren’t ambiguous about their intent to portray who the hero is in this class war.
Dancing down the long flight of stairs that lead to Joker’s grimy, neon-lit home to Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2 is the high point of this sensory glorification. The aesthetic glow of the film – the shadowy city, the minutiae of scenes and movements unfolding in it, and the unpredictable clown hero on his rampage – make the inconsistencies in how the violent events take place, and how Joker manages to be on his path away from the police almost irrelevant.
Joker is a blazing Joaquin Phoenix grinder. It is out-and-out Oscar bait. While satisfying on the acting and technical fronts, the where, why and how of pop culture’s most mythologised villain is deeply unsatisfying. Joker could do better than avenging just an impoverished, traumatic childhood.